In 2016, the columnist Salena Zito famously said that Trump supporters took him seriously but not literally, while his opponents in the media took him literally but not seriously. It was a useful formulation, or seemed to be so at the time, because it got at the way Trump’s crowds treated him like a visiting superstar comedian entertainer—like Andrew Dice Clay playing the Garden reciting dirty nursery rhymes—while media types treated him like the second coming of Hitler. The “seriously but not literally” explanation offered a way for people outside the Trump orbit to understand how on earth anyone who wasn’t a little evil could approve of the man in any way.
But there was a critical flaw in Zito’s formulation.There’s a reason that it mattered then, mattered through his presidency, and matters now that Trump’s wildly and massively irresponsible rhetoric can’t be explained away so glibly. Without question, the overwhelmingly vast majority of the 74 million who voted for Trump in November 2020 supported him in an entirely normal way. He was the Republican nominee. They are Republicans. He is anti-liberal. They are anti-liberal. He supports lower taxes. They support lower taxes. He stands against the media. They stand against the media. All of this would describe almost all Republican candidates for office and their voters. They took him seriously, sure. They might even have been tickled by his incorrectness. But the rest was neither here nor there.
But then there were those who took him seriously and literally—and the real world consequences are staring us in the face.
Among their number were just about 75,000 voters in Georgia who listened to him intently about the supposedly rigged and stolen election and then refused to come out for the runoffs—thus handing Senate control to the Democrats.
And among their number are the evil, monstrous, noxious, anti-American thugs and goons and marauders who showed up at the rally on Wednesday. They heard him say we will not have a country if Biden is allowed to become president. They heard him say it was time to fight. Back in 2015 and 2016 they heard him say it was OK to knock heads together when people did things he didn’t like. And, most startling, they heard him suggest his own vice president was failing a loyalty test at the very moment he was speaking to them. They heard him say it was time to march to the Capitol. And they did.
Watch this video. After a man says “we can take that place,” speaking of the Capitol, we see other men screaming about putting “heads on pikes.” A man says of Congress, “They don’t represent us. They need to pay the ultimate price for their crimes.” Not seen in this footage are the men who enter the building inveighing the vice-president’s name. “Where is Mike Pence,” they trilled, demonstrating the clear intent to do physical harm to him. This came after Trump tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”
These men and women stormed the capital in an open attempt to change the course of American history—or to punish those who were not acting in concert with the demands of their latter-day Charles Manson and his own Family of psychotic lawyers and deranged ex-mayors and dribbling sycophants, with their populist version of Manson’s helter skelter. There were more than enough of them to do it, and they did it because they took Donald Trump’s evil directives literally and seriously.